Steinbeck begins by stating that Cannery Row is “a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.” Describing the landscape, he mentions the “weedy lots and junk heaps” that sit alongside “sardine canneries,” bars, restaurants, brothels, “laboratories,” and “flophouses.” Steinbeck notes that a man once said that the people who live here are “whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches”—or, as Steinbeck himself puts it, “Everybody.” Going on, he adds, “Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, ‘Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,’ and he would have meant the same thing.”
By opening the novel with a lyrical examination of life in Cannery Row, Steinbeck signals to readers that this text will—above all—be a love letter to this squalid and beautiful place. Rather than setting a plot in motion, Steinbeck uses the opening pages to establish his interest in simply looking at what it’s like to live in Cannery Row (a coastal strip in Monterey, California that is full of canning factories). What’s more, he calls attention to the ways in which virtue and vice are intertwined, suggesting that people that society usually believes are wicked (“whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches”) can actually be as good as “saints and angels and martyrs and holy men.”
Steinbeck describes what Cannery Row is like in the morning, when the coast comes alive as people rush to work, men toil on boats, and “the canneries rumble and rattle and squeak.” Then, at day’s end, “the Row” becomes “quiet and magical” once more. “How can the poem and the stink and the grating noise—the quality of light, the tone, the habit and the dream—be set down alive?” Steinbeck wonders. “When you collect marine animals there are certain flat worms so delicate that they are almost impossible to capture whole, for they break and tatter under the touch. You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will onto a knife blade and then lift them gently into your bottle of sea water. And perhaps that might be the way to write this book—to open the page and let the stories crawl in by themselves.”
When Steinbeck considers the best way to portray life in Cannery Row, he suggests that reality is best represented by the randomness and disorder that makes it so difficult to describe in the first place. Rather than using complex narrative tricks, then, he has decided to simply “open the page and let the stories crawl in by themselves,” thereby suggesting that the inscrutable nature of life must be embraced for what it is. In turn, he encourages readers to accept the fact that this novel won’t always form a cohesive narrative.